AFGHANISTAN: ZABUL'S NO KABUL
The Economist, UK
Qalat: In Afghanistan's badlands, things are getting worse, not better
THE 19th-century British fort that dominates the skyline above Qalat offers an easy reference point for low-flying Apache helicopters heading for the America base near the town, the capital of Afghanistan's southern province of Zabul. Yet despite being backed by impressive foreign muscle, the government's control in Qalat barely reaches the city limits. On the Pakistani border, deep in the conservative Pushtun belt from which Mullah Omar's movement first emerged to gain control of Afghanistan, Zabul remains Taliban country. Security has deteriorated so badly on the Kabul to Kandahar highway that 17 new emplacements were built along a 60-kilometre (40-mile) stretch north of Qalat in June. The road is beginning to look like the Maginot line.
After the optimism that followed the low levels of violence during last year's presidential elections, is the tide turning? As the pockmarked walls of the British fort attest, America wouldn't be the first foreign power to lose its way in Afghanistan.
Despite claims that support for the Taliban is weak or extracted under duress, support in rural Zabul, at least, remains high. “In the rural areas the people are uneducated and they follow what the mullahs tell them,” says Mohib, an English teacher in Qalat. “The rural people are conservative and they don't like foreigners.” Locals say Zabul has only one functioning high school for boys: a campaign of arson and intimidation has closed all but five of 170 schools in the province.
Violence is also expected against workers and candidates in September's parliamentary elections. Ragabea Ranjba, a female candidate, accepts she will have little opportunity to present her manifesto. “We can't campaign because there is no stability here,” she says.
But despite the siege mentality evident in Qalat, the American and Afghan government forces claim to have fought and won several large battles in the south recently. These have been engagements on a scale rarely seen since 2002. Some 600 people are said to have died since March, three quarters of them alleged insurgents. The Taliban have repeatedly concentrated their forces, bringing together as many as 200-300 fighters and aiming to seize and hold entire districts for short periods. It is a bold tactic, which has been repeatedly punished with airpower. In late June, the Taliban held Mian Nishin district, north-west of Qalat, for two days, losing 178 fighters according to the government.
The causes of these large-scale engagements appear to be twofold. The latest rotation of American forces in the south has brought in the tough 173rd Airborne Brigade. Their ongoing Operation Determined Resolve has been an attempt to put the insurgents on the back foot ahead of the elections, by pushing into areas of the south hitherto regarded as Taliban safe havens. Yet it is also clear that the Taliban promise of a “spring offensive” was no bluff. Since March, they have showed themselves to be a still functional and well-equipped movement without any apparent shortage of manpower. A recent line proffered to the press that this is the last gasp of the Taliban rings hollow. Taliban fighters are clearly crossing and re-crossing from Pakistani border areas in large numbers. In the police chief's office in Qalat, General Abdul Sabur Al-Allahya casually lists five locations he claims are Taliban training camps on the Pakistan side of the border. Afghan officials accuse parts of the Pakistani administration and intelligence services of sympathy, even collusion, in training, logistics and intelligence support.
Other parties with a more clearly vested interest in instability are not hard to find in southern Afghanistan. From the vast opium business through to local warlords and tribal bodies opposed to disarmament and the imposition of strong central government, many would like to maintain the status quo. To this must be added a growing frustration amongst ordinary Afghans with the pace of reconstruction and the corruption that is taking hold in the organs of government. The blood-letting seems unlikely to abate ahead of September's elections, or indeed for a long time after that.
Background: Afghanistan's politics
Despite the overthrow of the Taliban, Afghanistan's political situation remains precarious. A new constitution establishing an Islamic republic was approved in January 2004. Later that year, Hamid Karzai, who led the country's interim government, won Afghanistan's first ever direct election for president. Yet his power is limited: Mr Karzai's government is riven by ethic divisions and its control outside the capital, Kabul, is partial.
To help rebuild Afghanistan, rich countries pledged $4.5 billion of aid in January 2002 and the same again in March 2004. Mr Karzai is trying to build a national army and the UN is leading efforts to clear millions of landmines. Pursuit of hard-core Taliban and al-Qaeda fugitives in the south of the country continues, though some find refuge in Pakistan. Parliamentary and local elections are due in September 2005.
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